Long Beach’s Norvel Pelle keeps NBA dream alive as draft approaches
The dream always unfolds the same way.
Norvel Pelle is in his Long Beach home on the night of the NBA draft, watching on television with his parents, when he hears his name called. “I start crying and I look up and my mom is there with a smile on her face and I give her the biggest hug ever,” said Pelle, who has had the same dream repeatedly in recent years.
In some ways, the fantasy isn’t that farfetched for someone who hopes to be drafted next Thursday despite never playing in college or professionally overseas.
The 6-foot-10 power forward-center, who once starred at Los Angeles Price High, is a knockdown mid-range shooter, and his speed running the court more nimbly than players a foot shorter earned him the nickname “Gazelle.” He also has the ability to block scads of shots because of his timing and length. One of his former trainers compared him to a younger version of Kevin Garnett, a 15-time All-Star.
Of course, all that upside comes with an unusual downside for a player once ranked as the top center in his high school class: a sideways journey that has included twice failing to meet college academic entrance requirements, first at St. John’s and then at Iona; an aborted attempt to enter the NBA draft last year; and one underwhelming season in the NBA’s Development League.
If Pelle is drafted, it probably will be in the second round. And not even that is guaranteed. Two prominent mock draft boards do not include him among the top 60 picks. “I would be surprised personally if he were drafted,” said Jonathan Givony, president of draftexpress.com, a website that evaluates top prospects.
Either way, Pelle, 21, will have to prove himself in summer league and again in fall camp to make a team. All he wants is a chance to prove that his talent belies his resume. “At the end of the day, everybody’s road isn’t the same,” Pelle said.
Pelle intended to enter the NBA draft last year, working out for eight teams before developing a blister/wart on his foot that required surgical removal. He withdrew his name from consideration 10 days before the draft.
He was eventually selected sixth overall — in the D-League draft.
His season with the Delaware 87ers wasn’t exactly a breakthrough. Pelle was lagging in basketball terminology and strength compared to teammates who had attended college, so he spent much of his time working on those deficiencies in practice. He started six of 35 games and played only 13.1 minutes per game.
“Sitting on the bench waiting for your number to be called was an eye-opener,” said Pelle, who averaged 5.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. “It made me even more hungry to want to play.”
His hunger was both metaphorical and literal. Pelle constantly tried to add weight to a twiggy 215-pound frame, eating every two hours. “I ate anything,” he said.
Because of his limited playing time, Pelle’s per-36-minute numbers might have been more reflective of his potential: 15.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.9 blocks, but also 8.0 fouls. His highlights on the D-League website show him blocking three shots in rapid-fire succession on the same possession.
Before going pro, Pelle attended three high schools in Southern California, toting his academic struggles along like a backpack.
He started at Lakewood, near the family’s Long Beach residence, in the fall of 2007 before switching to Compton Dominguez for his sophomore year because it offered a more high-profile basketball program. Pelle transferred to Price for his final two years of high school because, he said, he wanted a smaller, more academic-oriented environment; the private school has fewer than 100 students in grades nine through 12.
Continual movement was nothing new for Pelle, who was born in Antigua, moved to St. Croix when he was three and to the United States when he was seven because his parents found better work opportunities. His father, who shares the same first name, is a welder and his mother, Darlene, runs the garden center at a Home Depot.
By his junior year, Pelle had dug a deep hole with his grades. He also had to sit out that basketball season because of transfer rules, often attending tutoring sessions while his teammates practiced.
His oldest sister, Cherisa, quickly pinpointed Norvel’s primary weakness while helping him with his schoolwork. “It’s not like he was illiterate in terms of reading,” Cherisa said, “it’s just that English was not something he interpreted well.”
One subject Pelle excelled in was art. He constantly sketched anything that popped into his mind.
Seizing upon this interest, St. John’s Coach Steve Lavin took Pelle on his recruiting visit to the SoHo area of New York, widely known for its art galleries. Pelle signed a national letter of intent to play for Lavin, which the coach considered a coup since Pelle was listed as the No. 1 center in the Class of 2011 by scouting service Rivals.com.
But he would never play for the Red Storm. Although Pelle achieved the standardized test score he needed, he was able to attain only a 2.3 grade-point average when he needed a 2.5.
“He’s a very thoughtful, intelligent person,” Lavin said, “but he struggled with the conventional academic side of his schoolwork and test taking.”
Pelle set about improving his academic standing at a series of prep schools, where scores of prospects go to boost their grades after high school. His goal by then was to play for Iona, a mid-major college that offered immediate playing time, but the NCAA eventually determined he did not make enough progress toward entrance requirements. Pelle was devastated.
“It was like, can’t you get something done?” he said.
After a nearly two-year layoff from basketball, Pelle started playing again in late 2012 after a childhood friend took him to one of his games at L.A. College Prep and introduced him to Mike Miller, the team’s coach.
Pelle played the rest of the season, but he was still nowhere near his intended destination.
After his D-League season ended in April, Pelle completed a CrossFit program in Greensboro, N.C., to improve his strength and conditioning. He added about 10 pounds of muscle in seven weeks.
Pelle also worked out for the Philadelphia 76ers (who hold one of last picks in the second round, the 54th overall) and the Toronto Raptors (59th pick) and participated in a showcase attended by seven other teams.
His agent, Tod Seidel, described Pelle as “a solid second-round pick” but said he’s ready to prove himself regardless of whether he’s drafted.
“He’s ready to go forward, he’s not stuck on the number of where he’s going to get drafted or who’s going to draft him or any of that,” Seidel said. “He’s just ready to join a team and be in a good situation and have a shot at playing his way onto a team.”
In his recurring dream, Pelle flashes from hearing his name called to an NBA court where bright lights engulf him. He hears fans chanting his name.
It feels completely natural, as if he’s home.
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